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Tuesday 20 March 2018

Plan may see pupils take seat on boards

Upcoming legislation for a parent and student charter in every school is generating lively conversations about rights and responsibilities

Planning ahead: Students from Stratford College Secondary School, including Katie Webb (left) and Cormac Kelly. Photo: Damien Eagers
Planning ahead: Students from Stratford College Secondary School, including Katie Webb (left) and Cormac Kelly. Photo: Damien Eagers
Open engagement: Principal Patricia Gordon at Stratford College, Rathgar. Photo: Damien Eagers
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Some may take the view that democracy has gone mad, but among the proposals for a parent and student charter to govern the entire family of school relationships is that pupils have a seat on the board of management.

The charter is envisaged in legislation currently making its way through the parliamentary system, aimed at putting relationships between schools, students and parents on a new footing, including a requirement for all schools to publish and operate a parent and student charter.

The overall goal of the legislation is to embed better communication, accountability and transparency cultures in schools.

While the legislation will set a general framework, the fine detail of the charter will be teased out between the Department of Education and representatives groups, such as the national parents' councils, both primary and post-primary, and the Irish Second Level Students' Union.

It is through that working party that the proposal that second-level schools should go beyond having a consultative student council and put a pupil on the board will be considered. It provides scope for lively discussion on any such involvement, and how it might work.

Unsurprisingly, the proposed legislation has triggered a national conversation: it is the subject of hearings by the Oireachtas Education Committee, it has its watercooler moments in staff rooms, and the National Parents Council-Post Primary (NPC-PP) is currently conducting a survey on its website to gather views of parents to bring to the working party.

Paul Beddy and Paul Rolston of the NPC-PP told the Oireachtas committee that parents feel excluded from having an input into the system at second-level and want to be consulted on all aspects of children's education and development.

A few years ago, a survey by the National Parents Council-Primary (NPC-P) found that 96pc of parents listed fundraising as an activity of their school's parent association, but only 31pc reported any encouragement from the school to become more involved in their child's education.

According to the NPC-PP, the majority of queries it receives relate to grievance procedures, with many parents unaware of how to pursue a problem, and fearing reprisal if they do. It says that many parents feel intimidated by the process.

Current complaints procedures in schools are not underpinned by legislation and there can be a confusing variation in practice. The charter will change that, but the big goal is a culture that will avoid grievances emerging in the first place and, where they do, to resolve them informally.

A parents' seat on boards of management, parent associations and student councils have all been part of the education landscape for years, but the charter will provide unprecedented legislative underpinning to the rights of parents and students.

One of the charter's goals is to ensure that all schools have a healthy "listening culture", with feedback from parents and students on issues such as teaching and learning and how money is spent.

A subtle, but significant, shift encompassed in the legislation will be a change in focus of the student council from being one of promoting the interests of the school, to promoting the interests of the student. The Ombudsman for Children and the Irish Primary Principals' Network (IPPN) agree that the charter should be renamed the Student and Parent Charter.

The issuing, recently, of a Department of Education circular setting a requirement for schools to consult with parents on costs such as uniforms and books is an example of the type of engagement envisaged. In the case of uniforms and books, many schools say they already do this.

Some will greet the bestowal of additional rights to students and parents with a certain hesitancy, but the philosophy behind the charter is that it will benefit every stakeholder in school communities.

Patricia Gordon, principal of Stratford College Rathgar, Dublin, is very open to the charter idea and recently hosted a panel discussion in the school giving various stakeholders an opportunity to air their positions.

Stratford has a tradition of open engagement stretching back over 20 years, which has formalised to become an annual meeting between the board of management, student council and parents' association.

She says "such engagement has always been a positive. I see no threat from a parent and student charter, more an enhancement of existing relationships, embedding both rights and responsibilities.

"In my experience, the more involved students and parents are in school life, the better understanding they have of how much work is involved."

But she says that resources, training and a robust set of guidelines will be needed to steer a path.

Teacher unions support schools adopting best practice in their dealings with parents and student, but also caution about the need to balance the rights and responsibilities of all parties and are concerned about any "misconceptions" that may be driving changes. They also insist it will have to be backed by resources.

When she addressed the Oireachtas committee recently, as president of the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI), Joanne Irwin said the TUI disputed the assumption that a large volume of complaints and grievances were not being adequately addressed.

She noted that the Ombudsman for Children's office recorded 4,000 complaints about schools in the past 14 years. This, she said, amounted to fewer than 300 complaints per year in the context of 4,000 schools, serving 917,000 students. "Viewed objectively, this constitutes a very low rate of complaint," she said.

Moira Leyden, assistant general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers' Ireland (ASTI) describes the legislation as a timely and judicious response to aspects of the education system that are not perceived to be working as well as they might be, but she warns that the cultural change it is seeking cannot, and will not, succeed - unless schools are given adequate resources.

Listening to the voice of scholars

The pupil voice is clearly heard at Stratford College, Rathgar, Dublin where a vibrant student council is consulted on issues such as the length of classes.

It is a two-way process and the council also raises matters of concern to students with the principal.

The council, currently made up of 13 members, drawn from all years, meets weekly and, more often, as necessary.

Council member Cormac Kelly (17), a fifth year pupil, highlights the role the council has played, and continues to play, in the school's transition from 40 minute to one hour classes, a current trend at second-level schools.

"We got feedback to see how students were coping with the change. I think most people believe that one hour classes are more beneficial than 40 minute classes, but we were able to put some ideas about a short break between them, to allow people to get focussed again."

Sixth year student Moya Richardson McCrea (18), who chaired the council last year, recalls raising "small things, like access to the microwave at lunchtime, and I was asked to ask if the boys could wear earrings, but there were bigger things as well.

"It is nice to know, if you go to Ms Gordon, you will get an answer and, hopefully, a change."

She says one of the benefits of being on the council was that it equipped her for public speaking: "I think I was a lot quieter before and now I don't mind doing it."

Fifth year pupil Ryan Baker (17) is on the council and also acts as liaison officer between it and Stratford's highly-commended Green Schools' programme, about which he is passionate.

"At council meetings, I would suggest something and the rest of group would agree or disagree," he says, and they take it from there.

History and CSPE teacher Venita Kenny, who facilitates the weekly meetings, also organises leadership training for members.

She describes the council as a "structured opportunity for students to engage with each other and to discuss issues, but also to propose alternatives and to make suggestions for management, for teachers or for each other".

Irish Independent

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